Recreational Meditation Part 2: How it Helps

By Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

In Part 1 (posted 4/27), I described myths about meditation – that you have to do it for a pretty long time, that you should have a blank mind, and so on. Here’s why meditating – any form you want – helps you, and a little about which type helps with what issue:

Relaxation: Meditation is deeply relaxing, with a type of relaxation that often renews you afterwards. It slows down the chattering mind a bit as well as the body. It’s useful just for this. If your main purpose is relaxation, I recommend guided visualization audios, or even just lying down and focusing your attention on meditation music. It has also been shown that after even brief periods of meditation, the “relaxation response” tends to last for hours, fading gradually. This “inoculates” you against stress and emotional over-reaction.

Improving Concentration: most of the meditation being taught today is a variation of ‘one-pointed focus,’ it involves focusing your attention on a sensation – the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the body is classic, but it could be a visual point, a sound, tactile sensations, a mantra, a candle flame, or counting. You let thoughts go by without hanging on to them or trying to banish them, ‘like clouds across a blue sky’, and when you realize you are distracted you gently bring your attention back to your focal point. There is a ton of research to show that this type of meditation changes a part of the brain that strengthens the ability to concentrate. You strengthen your brain every time your mind wanders, you catch yourself, and bring your attention back. So the wandering mind isn’t a ‘mistake’, it’s a mental push up. If this is what you want, experiment with different ‘one-pointed focus’ meditations. Although people with AD/HD have a really difficult time with this kind of meditation, it also helps them perhaps the most. I recommend really brief periods of this….a minute or two at a time…if it’s hard.

Learning to be Less Reactive: Meditation slows down the mind, and when that happens you can start to observe a tiny space between a sensation and a reaction. For example, if you do a meditation where you focus on sounds coming into your ears, you may hear unexpected or sudden sounds and be able to notice the sensation of the sound, a space…..and then your reaction of, say, a skipped heart beat or quickened pulse or breath. You start to see the difference between a stimuli point and your reaction to that stimuli. Once stimuli and response have been uncoupled, you can see your own reaction as highly personal and idiosyncratic, sometimes having little to do with the stimuli. And the little ‘space’ gives you the option of choosing if and how to process your reaction. In an experiment in teaching these techniques to NYC school children, a fifth grader definied ‘mindfulness’ as ‘not hitting someone in the mouth.’ Great description of this benefit of meditation.

Connection to your body and the physical: People who are ‘in their heads’ all the time may benefit from meditations like the body scan that focus attention on physical sensations. This is why yoga works so well for me. Abuse survivors are often disconnected from their bodies, and body-focused meditations may be emotionally difficult at first but ultimately worth the effort.

Insight: if you are practicing any kind of focused meditation, pay attention not to the many random background thoughts that float across your mind’s sky, but to what really pulls you away. Whenever your mind really wanders you have an opportunity to learn something about yourself, about the things that ‘grab’ your attention in your day to day life. You can also practice labeling the types of thoughts that grab you – ‘planning,’ ‘worry,’ ‘remembering’ – and you can learn to understand the stream of sub-vocal automatic thoughts that play in the back of your head and influence you.

Self-acceptance: the practice of meditation involves accepting whatever thoughts and feelings that arise in you without getting stuck in them. It involves not judging whatever comes up for you. And believe me, all kinds of petty, embarrassing, even shocking thoughts and feelings WILL arise. Through ‘radical acceptance’…..just letting yourself have the human reactions you have, whatever they are….you start to feel at peace with yourself.

Healing: most of what I’ve already described IS healing. But in addition, there are many meditations – lovingkindness focused on self, forgiveness, etc., that help you heal inner wounds and develop self-love. I recommend Pema Chodron and Sharon Salzberg for effective self-healing meditations.

Remember – a little meditation is better than none. Any type that grabs you is the BEST type of meditation – for you. Hope this little manual helps.


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